Kaige Chen builds upon his previous film and delivers a magnificent fantasy/mystery. The plot is laid out step by step, progressing calmly and deliberately, but it's the visuals that blew me away. The shoddy CG is kept to a minimum this time around, the rest is simply eye-wateringly beautiful.
The good stuff
Monk Comes Down the Mountain is above all a very amusing film. Chen made a light-hearted, fun and playful little romp, which rises above itself thanks to its tremendous production value.
There's a lot of flag-waving and chest-thumping going on here, but look past that and you'll find a decent anthology celebrating the achievements of the little people, helmed by some of China's prime directors. It was a little too sentimental and overdone in places, but it wasn't as terrible as I had initially feared it would be.
A nice and solemn little drama about a teacher moving to a small mountain commune in order to tutor the local kids. The pacing is rather slow, but the setting is beautiful, the cinematography is on point and the actors do a solid job. The token social critique isn't very subtle, but the film had enough other qualities to keep me engaged.
Worthy but flawed
A decent but very predictable drama. Performances are all over the place, the plot isn't all that interesting and characters remain quite stereotypical. It's not a terrible film though and Chen's baseline quality shines through from time to time, but I expected more from this film. Decent filler, nothing more.
Kaige Chen is a director whose career got off to a rough start. Part of China's 5th Generation, his early work lacks the finesse of fellow director Yimou Zhang and is easily categorized as a bland and depressing arthouse drama. Yellow Earth is another film about the Chinese revolutionaries, full of poverty-stricken rural vistas and shrill Chinese folk songs.
Yellow Earth is a widely celebrated film of course, everyone in the West loves it when China portrays itself as a nation full of country bumpkins who are trailing at least one century behind Western civilization. I've grown tired of these films and without the stylistic prowess of his contemporaries, there's just very little here for me.
Performances are mediocre, the soundtrack is a struggle and the landscape photography isn't as nice as it should've been. The entire film ends up being a test of patience, with only a handful moments that break free from its depressing reigns. At least it's not too long, but I prefer Chen's more recent output.